I WAS EXCITED TO SEE the first signs of spring last weekend. Literally, the signs: “Estate Sale,” “Yard Sale.” DC’s season of secondhand selling gears up in March (and fades in the summer before rallying come fall). There are fabulous finds to be had—but also acres of blankets piled with “#1 Grandpa” mugs and Rec League T-shirts. How to get the good stuff? I’ve spent 20 years outfitting my house, my spouse, my kids and myself with cast-offs, devoting no more than a couple of hours every few Saturdays during the high season. A few pointers:
Who, what, where, when Find ads in local papers’ classifieds, of course, but neighborhood listservs and Craigslist are also key. Check on Friday nights, going back a few days’ worth. Don’t ignore the odd sign on a telephone pole, either—some sellers still go low-tech, and you’ll have less competition as a buyer.
Location In general, don’t bother traveling far. The odds of a major score at a given sale are slim enough that it’s questionable to go more than one or two towns/neighborhoods away. That said, rich people ditch nicer stuff, and can be—can be—quite casual about its worth. Tools, toys, pots, pans: Any sale anywhere may suit. But if you’re looking to snag luxury—high-end antiques, pristine designer clothes, Waterford crystal—an affluent area (or just one swanky house) is worth the trip. (The Village of Chevy Chase is my local favorite.)
Type Sales that sound the most promising can offer surprisingly slim pickings. “Multi-family” or “neighborhood-wide” are worth checking because of geographical concentration, but be prepared to skim and move on quickly. Some participants just put out whatever flotsam is handy—leaky umbrellas, coffee makers missing parts—while a family holding its own garage or, even better, moving sale is seriously invested in divesting. Estate sales are good for furniture, rugs, sets of dishes, but have disadvantages: Pricing is done by pros, so good deals, but few steals; mostly useless relics (cordial glasses, demitasse cups, ashtrays, tchotchkes) galore; here and there a retro treasure, but usually apparel is fussy, fusty and depressing.
Timing Professional buyers sweep through first thing. If you’re on a serious safari, get there early and try flouting the NO EARLY BIRDS warnings—no matter what they say, sellers often relent. But I like my sleep Saturday mornings, and if you’re just browsing, there’s usually plenty of good stuff left a couple of hours in. Go toward the end and you may still find a perfect this or that, plus a seller motivated to negotiate (more on which, below).
Be open to anything I may have a wish list (electric kettle, standing lamp), but I’ll always scoop up new printer paper, emery boards, water bottles, hoodies—things we routinely use or lose—for one-tenth of retail. Mostly, I’m merely looking for what pleases me and costs a song. Some all-time favorites—a prairie-ish quilt for $10, saddle-leather portfolio for $2, herb-decorated mortar and pestle for $1, handsome dining chairs, $40 for a set—I almost didn’t buy because I didn’t need them. But I could use them, and they make me happy every time I do.
But not everything… Cole Haans for $5! Faïence jug, $1! New printer, $10! Can’t use them, don’t have room to store them, would be paying for…clutter, but sometimes I can resist only by generously thinking “Now, now, let’s leave some deals for others.”
Bargaining People want their possessions to go to someone who appreciates them. Don’t talk an item down, talk it up. “Oh, it’s beautiful. I love it! From Cambodia? How interesting! [tentatively] Would you be willing to take $5 for it? No, of course, I’m sure it is worth more. [apologetically] I feel like I can pay only $5 for it [barely glancing at the $5 you’re holding visibly in hand], but I understand, if you think you can get $10 for it later….” Unless there’s a huge flaw, don’t argue value. Ask the price, decide how much it’s worth to you, and you’ll have no regrets about (pleasantly) putting it back—at which point the seller may cave anyway. Almost always, buying bulk = discount; adding a few low-cost items to a big buy can get you an illogically large discount overall.
Don’t be stupid Some sellers way overvalue their used crud, or are unable to let go of their original cost ($45 for fleece?! Lady, it’s a yard sale!). But don’t surrender to tunnel vision. When tops sell for $2, $20 feels outrageous. But if it’s a brand-new shirt from a designer you love, try thinking, “If I saw this in Saks Fifth Avenue marked down to $20, would I buy it?”
Hazards Lice, bed bugs, cockroaches—just saying. I’ve never bought anything infected (I think). But if it’s washable, wash it right away. And for the unwashable, furniture and such? Maybe someday all the money I’ve saved will have to go to an exterminator.